A crisis of creativity: London's status as a creative capital comes under threat post-Brexit

Tired of London, tired of life? Or simply tired of exorbitant rent, unreliable transport and an unforgiving achievement economy. In a post-Brexit world, London's position as a creative capital is under threat, Suzy Bashford writes.

A crisis of creativity: London's status as a creative capital comes under threat post-Brexit

London has long inspired many a great writer and poet, captivated by its "many-steepled sky" (John Betjeman), its "majesty" (William Wordsworth) and "spirit which I feel around me" (Charlotte Brontë).

And so it has acted as an inspiration for the creative industries, too. Ask any London marketing mind about its merits as a creative capital and they will cite the city’s feast for the senses and melting pot of cultures. 

To the question of whether London’s role as a creative capital is under threat, Scott Morrison, founder of creative consultancy The Boom!, gives this poetic riposte: "London was, is and will continue to be one of the world’s most powerful, creative hubs. Why? Because it’s a rare breed of city. A proper rough and jumble of race, religion, gender, food, thought, fashion, writing, film, art. Anything you can think of happens here. And these cultural rubbings will continue to create long after Brexit, because there is neither a canvas more open, nor an easel more willing, than this beautifully diverse metropolis."

Perhaps this is an inevitable answer from someone based in London, who runs a business centred on idea-generation for brands, but those working at brands are just as effusive. 

Emma Inston, global head of brand and customer communications at energy company E.ON, says: "London will remain a leading light because we lead in the role of planning, as well as creativity in the creative process. Will Britain’s heritage in creativity and advertising remain? Yes. We have such a strong range of both networks and smaller independent agencies combined with the heritage, which will always be with us. In a digital world, with multiple, non-linear touchpoints, the strength of the core idea is even more important. Are London marketing/ad/creative/media agencies in danger of losing their place on the world stage? No." 

‘London’s cultural rubbings will continue to create long after Brexit, because there is neither a canvas more open nor an easel more willing’ Scott Morrison, The Boom!

Other brand marketers agree that politics won’t affect London’s status as a creative leader. Rasmus Bendsten, international marketing manager at Carlsberg, says: "It’s not the location of an agency that matters to us as a brand. It’s the ability to project a global outlook, which can effectively speak to our diverse audience." 

This is something London agency Fold7 demonstrated in a recent global campaign for the beer brand, Bendsten says, which convinced him that the Brexit vote will not "materially impact their ability to [project this outlook], and I see no reason for the global community to reassess London’s image of the UK as a hub of creativity and culture". 

Francesco Vitrano, marketing director, chocolate, UK and Ireland, at Mondelez International, echoes this: "London is one of the best examples of a multicultural metropolis in the world. I cannot see how this equity can be spoiled by Brexit."

Indeed, Fold7 chief executive Marc Nohr goes as far as to say that Brexit could push agencies to be more creative, arguing that "creativity can have a somewhat counter-intuitive relationship with the economy, in which hard times can bring about a renaissance of the creative spirit". 

Some marketers are equally upbeat about Brexit’s potential to actually trigger creativity, rather than hamper it. Louise Troen, global brand director at dating app Bumble, is one: "Creativity lives outside of tangible, finite geography. If anything, [Brexit] might re-inspire us to think more globally, it might challenge us to innovate more."

Rethinking working platforms

The dissolution of geographical boundaries is mentioned repeatedly as an argument for London maintaining its creative stronghold. As the Brexit deal unfolds, Morrison predicts: "We won’t think simply of cities as hubs for creativity, but rather platforms and the cloud as hubs for great creative talent." This, he says, will enable brands to tap into them more flexibly. 

‘London’s quality of life is slipping – the pollution, the traffic, the house prices and personal happiness’Meher Mumtaz, Western Union

Helen Kimber, managing partner at recruitment consultancy The Longhouse London, confirms that this is a trend she’s seeing, especially among more senior talent, who want a better work-life balance. 

"We are a much smaller, much more connected world now," she says. "Physical location is less important. Quite a lot of the best talent are making lifestyle choices that allow them to do other things. You don’t need to be physically sitting in London to do your job – certainly not five days a week. I know quite a few good people that live in the south of France, work remotely for a couple of weeks, then come over to London for a few days."

In a digital world, this demand for occasional face-to-face time is becoming more important, not less so, according to Exposure founder Raoul Shah. His agency has just opened a Paris office on this basis. He says it was not "a response to Brexit", but adds that if the UK "becomes difficult", then the agency has a "foot on the ground" in mainland Europe.

"We spend more time going to see clients than five years ago, when it was all done by video and text," he says. "We’ve got rid of that with key clients. Being physically with the client in a room, wherever that room is, is absolutely paramount to long-term relationships. That’s why the melting pot will not disappear; it doesn’t reside in one office or one city."

Life outside London

It’s easy to get sucked into the romanticism of London, but not everyone is so positive about its ability to keep its current creative status post Brexit. In a recent global trade report, nearly 80% of Creative Industries Federation members said that they are not confident that the UK will maintain its leading global reputation. 

The words of Meher Mumtaz, global brand strategy director, Western Union, should serve as a wake-up call. "It’s no secret that London’s quality of life is slipping – the pollution, the traffic, the house prices and, according to a survey of expat Londoners, personal happiness," she says. "Until last year, the UK was Western Union’s biggest market in Europe, now it’s France. Neither London, nor its employers, can afford to be complacent when it comes to fiercely protecting its status as a cultural melting pot." 

The diversity gap

Some are already questioning London’s ability to crack global briefs, with commentators such as Mélanie Chevalier, chief executive of Creative Culture, arguing that the UK capital can lack multicultural understanding. Hers is a cross-cultural consultancy, which supports brands and agencies that want to roll out international campaigns. While she agrees that London remains Europe’s creative hub, Chevalier says she can see "clouds on the horizon" and international clients eyeing up other hubs such as Amsterdam (see "The new creative capitals", left).

"[Brands] with international scope often comment on their London agencies being too ‘British-orientated’ or even ‘too focused on London’. This lack of cultural awareness towards the rest of the world results in campaigns that are not always appropriate in other countries," she adds.

The talent crisis

There is, however, unanimous agreement that the biggest threat posed by Brexit to the industry is free movement of talent, particularly at entry level. The key to London’s vibrancy is, indisputably, its diversity, born of the people who flock to it from around the world. But, post-Brexit, it is likely to be much harder for talent to do this as easily. 

"Visas are already a problem in our business. If we have someone excellent in Australia who needs a visa, this can definitely shut things down," Kimber says. "If we get to a point where everybody from everywhere needs a visa, we will have a problem. We won’t bring people over. And if we can’t bring people in from other cultures, unfortunately we are not going to have a diverse workforce because we are all going to come from middle England."

However, although restricting recruitment will be a huge blow to creativity in London, it is disingenuous to blame Brexit for the threat to diversity we face. Diversity in the industry is already a huge problem. 

"Brexit is not the real threat to London’s creative force. The real threat is embedded cultures within agencies that don’t take advantage of the diversity on their doorsteps," Sam Shaw, strategy director at Canvas8, says. He points out that while one in three (35%) Londoners is from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, in agencies, they  account for just 12.9% of employees. The proportion is even lower in creative agencies, where it’s only one in 10.

The Advertising Association is lobbying hard for the best deal on cross-borders talent movement. It is working closely with the Department of International Trade to promote the British ad industry’s image abroad, contributing to the "Britain is GREAT" campaign to reassure the rest of the world that the "made in Britain" label is "even more powerful post-Brexit".

But the melting pot has to exist within the four walls of creative businesses, not just outside them. Creative companies must improve at fighting to recruit diverse talent. 

"They will have to get processes in place and invest in this area," Kimber says. "Or they will exacerbate these dreadful diversity issues that we’ve all been banging on about."

Crisis point

Creativity, like charity, must start at home, and is nurtured in the corridors of agencies and brands. Whether London is synonymous with creativity in the future lies in these small pockets. It is not to be found in the lobbyists’ meetings or the minutiae of legislation. Strong brands, "Made in Britain" included, always arise, according to Interbrand’s head of strategy Simon Cotterrell, "from the consistency and passion of the people within".

The sector needs to see this crisis as an opportunity to reinvent, Jason Gonsalves, chief executive of Mcgarrybowen, argues. He adds: "The true cultural impact of Brexit will be shaped by the response of creative people and our industry." 

When you talk to younger people about why they flock to London, as the AA has done for its "A great advert for Britain" campaign, they regularly cite London’s openness, welcoming attitude, love of challenge and internationalism. These are all characteristics that companies can continue to cultivate, regardless of the deal that is finally struck on Brexit. If they don’t, then London risks fading to a shadow of its former self.

As Jamaican-born Elorie Palmer, a partnership sales executive at Immediate Media, told the AA, this future would look bleak: "Post-Brexit, if we just had one set of people thinking a specific way, everything would just be generic and vanilla. There would be no spice to it, no flavour. It would be grey. It would be like a fog." 


New creative capitals: the hotspots attracting young talent

The emotional impact of Brexit on talent, especially younger people, shouldn’t be underestimated. Chevalier says that, outside Britain, there is a lot of resentment among EU member states about Brexit, with it seen by many as a "betrayal". This is affecting people’s desire to work in the UK. 

"Young people aren’t entertaining the dream of coming to live in London as much as they used to and it will be more difficult/nearly impossible to get a job if visa requirements are put into place," she says.

So where are they now flocking?

Amsterdam is scaling the wish list for creative places to work and is already home to the headquarters of global brands such as Adidas, booking.com, Netflix and Uber. 

Kenn Macrae, a freelance creative director who lives there, says the city has much to offer. "Ever-increasing awareness and appreciation of work-life balance really pushes Amsterdam to the fore," he says. "Post-Brexit Amsterdam is bristling with opportunity, through not only British and global companies shifting HQs here, but the corresponding wave of creative talent on both the agency and brand sides."

This talent is being attracted, too, by tax incentives for people who move to work in advertising there. Other contenders to steal London’s creative crown include Berlin, with a lower cost of living, and New York, which already matches London’s creative cachet. 

"Hubs" are also emerging outside London within the UK, such as Manchester and Bristol. "This can only be a boon for the UK as a whole, forming an extended creative network, which serves to further diversify our thinking and encourage creatives from all walks of life to join the industry," Nohr says.

Kimber reiterates that, in a digital world, the location matters less. In future, success will centre on the ability to reach in to hubs of creativity around the globe, whether they are in Miami, Stockholm or Berlin. "It will be a mix, rather than one definitive place," she predicts. Nevertheless, she remains inundated by CVs from people straight out of university, from all over the world, who want to "do London".

"I would be surprised to meet a person working in the comms business for whom London wasn’t on their list," she says. "Even if you think, ‘I’m never going to afford to buy a house there’, that’s not going to stop you coming here to suck what you can from the vibe and the experience, then moving on."

This is echoed by graduate recruit Hannah Baker, content and marketing manager at Engine. "There is no better city in the UK for young creative people, but it isn’t without its challenges," she says. "High rent and even higher living costs can price many people out of unpaid internships, and the economic ramifications of Brexit are only going to make that worse. The ad industry needs diverse talent to thrive, so living-wage internships and apprenticeship schemes are essential. I wouldn’t have made it without one."